Sunday, August 24, 2008

Immigration 101

Immigration is a word that conjures up all kinds of interest and opinions. When people find out what I do, I am usually barraged with questions, asked for opinions and input on the immigration issues facing the country. I have some pretty strong opinions about immigration - both legal and illegal but none have any bearing on what I do in my work. Three of my four grandparents were immigrants and am grateful that the system worked. Worked - past tense or at least was more transparent.

When problems arise (and they usually do) I work closely with our local congressman's office and his DHS liaison (every office has one). There is a comment that replays in my head about process - that - sit down for this - the process was originally intended to be managed by the individual, without aid. I chuckled. No one in their right, or left, mind would ever think that this process could be navigated, successfully, without a host of attorneys, paralegals and consulates.

I had someone write and ask me to share some of my immigration experience and decided to do it over a series of postings. I am the Responsible Office for our Exchange Visitor program through the Department of State; coordinate all the H1b work visas and international travel, Permanent Residency applications and the easiest of them all, NAFTA - TN. I have a book full of unbelievable and hilarious stories, depending on your point of view. It's also important to share how our border agents seem to be treating our internationals scholars as them come to the US to teach - some are terrific and some aren't.

I have been doing this kind of work for ten + years and despite what people think, border patrol and immigration has always been a serious evolution. 9/11 catapulted the topic into mainstream and created TSA. It seemed to give wider latitude to consulates and border agents (and that isn't a compliment). Decisions can be arbitrary without reason or explanation, and terribly inconsistent. There seems to be no accountability. and virtually no transparency. A former law firm with whom I worked had runners who would visit two of our entry ports to see who was working the gates and staffing the offices. The agents working would determine the entry of the international visitor. This is not an uncommon practice.

In my administration, there are a couple of ground rules. We don't pay bribes. Period. That can be a problem when dealing with some countries. We do however pay reciprocity fees and expedited fees. They are darn close to bribes, only paid to government officials, not individuals.

We do require our international colleagues to be responsible for their immigration status, paperwork and documents. When they leave the country without documents, and can't get back in, it's their problem (which quickly becomes mine) and it is also their expense. If a passport expires, it is not my problem. While I will provide support, it is their responsibility to know their individual country's consulate rules, processing time and accessibility. Some require visitors to call a 900 number and pay for the call. Others require payment upfront before an appointment is extended. Others may close for local holidays. I can't stay on top of each consulate around the world.

And people need to follow the rules. It isn't optional. While higher education and its governance runs well on collaboration, discussion and compromise, immigration does not. It's concrete, specific and as I say frequently, without a sense of humor.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to share or email.

Next - the TN.

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